Taking to the Skies: Exploring Early Aviation for Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Birthday

Pop quiz: What non-religious book has been translated into the most languages?

Answer: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry (originally composed in French, titled Le Petit Prince). Published in 1943, this novella has been translated into more than 382 different languages since its publication.* Although The Little Prince is a philosophical and fantastical story, it has foundations in the author’s life experiences. Born in 1900, Saint Exupéry was an early pioneer of global airmail routes and served as a French Air Force Pilot in World War II. He was inspired by flight at an early age and survived several plane crashes throughout his life, including a 1935 crash in the Libyan desert where he experienced severe dehydration and hallucinations for several days before being rescued. The story of The Little Prince follows a similar premise, in which the narrator is an airline pilot who crashes in the desert and meets an inquisitive golden-haired boy nicknamed “the little prince.”

Antoine de Saint Exupéry was an extraordinary figure who traversed the realms of aviation and authorship. In honor of his birthday on June 29th, the books below highlight the real stories of many other notable figures in the history of aviation, including Amelia Earhart, James Herman Banning, Hazel Ying Lee, Bessie Coleman, and more.

Fleming, Candace
Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart. 2011 (Middle Grade Nonfiction).
This Art-Deco styled biography of one of the most famous female pilots of all time alternates chapters between Amelia’s youth and the endeavor for which she is best known — her attempt in 1937 to fly around the circumference of the globe. Part way through the journey, Amelia’s plane disappeared over the Pacific Ocean and the remains have never been found. Fleming sheds light on Amelia”s personality, uncovering what was behind her mythologized figure, by describing her other pursuits (writing, medicine, and fashion) and her impressive aptitude for business. Interspersed black and white photographs and quotes from primary sources will transport young readers back in time to better understand the legendary Amelia Earhart.
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Fleming, Candace
The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh. 2020 (Young Adult Nonfiction).
This biography of Charles Lindbergh, written for young adults, chronicles the unruly early years of aviation and Lindbergh’s landmark accomplishment of becoming the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927. This astonishing feat in aviation paved the way for the future of commercial flights, but also catapulted Charles Lindbergh into blockbuster fame. Lindbergh became a prominent public figure, which meant constant invasive coverage of his life by the press, including the traumatic kidnapping and murder of his firstborn child. Fleming creates an honest portrait of Lindbergh, who was a Nazi sympathizer, proponent of eugenics, medical device inventor, and a leader of the America First Committee. Told in short chapters with an incredible amount of supporting background research, this is an engrossing read for young people who want a glimpse into the early evolution of aviation and an understanding of the historical parallels of the extreme political ideologies resurfacing in contemporary America.
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Jaggar, Louisa and Shari Becker
Illustrated by: Floyd Cooper
Sprouting Wings: The True Story of James Herman Banning, the First African American Pilot to Fly Across the United States. 2021 (Picture Book Biography).
Born on a farm at the turn of the century, young James Herman Banning dreamed of one day piloting a “flying machine” like he read about in newspapers and library books. After leaving college early due to lack of funds, Banning opened his own auto shop in Iowa, fixing up vehicles on the ground with continued hopes of someday taking to the sky. All the flight schools in the area refused to admit Banning because he was a Black man. One day a military pilot visited the auto shop and agreed to teach Banning how to fly, but the Lieutenant died in a crash before they could complete their training. Determined to become a pilot, but lacking a plane, Banning decided to build his own airplane piece by piece before setting his sights on a new goal — becoming the first African American man to fly across the United States. What follows is a riveting tale of the trials and hurdles, as well as the dozens of small-town folks along the way who supported Banning’s 1932 journey. Coretta Scott King Award-winning illustrator Cooper’s art is warm and emotive, complementing the significance of this lesser-known story in aviation history.
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Larson, Kirsten W.
Illustrated by: Tracy Subisak
Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane. 2020 (Picture Book Biography).
Although the Wright brothers constructed the very first airplane capable of sustaining flight, determined inventor Emma Lilian Todd engineered a more practical aircraft shortly thereafter. This picture book biography focuses on Todd’s youth, chronicling her curiosity and propensity for problem solving, as she regularly disassembled everyday objects to figure out how they worked. With hardly any opportunities for women to be employed as engineers in the late nineteenth century, Todd strategically found a typing job at the U.S. Patents Office. Still determined to invent, Todd tinkered with her ideas and built many airplane prototypes. Although she was never a pilot herself, Todd’s contributions to aircraft design changed the course of early aviation.
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Leung, Julie
Illustrated by: Julie Kwon
The Fearless Flights of Hazel Ying Lee. 2021 (Picture Book Biography).
As a child, Hazel Ying Lee was fearless. She was always the first to jump into the swimming pool, and never hesitated to race all the boys in the neighborhood. From the first time Lee rode in a plane at the age of nineteen, it was clear she was destined for the sky. Even though very few women were pilots in 1932, Lee was ready to do what no other Chinese American woman had done and learn to fly an airplane. When World War II began, Lee joined a new US military program training women pilots on the home front, called the Women Airforce Service Pilots (or WASPs). The work was dangerous, as the women were flying new planes directly off the assembly line and often discovered manufacturing defects. Hazel Ying Lee faced sexism and racist discrimination both during her lifetime and in the aftermath of her sudden death, as her family had to advocate for her burial in a whites-only cemetery. With colorful painterly illustrations, this picture book boldly conveys Lee’s fearless nature and celebrates her invaluable contributions to the war effort.
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O’Brien, Keith
Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History (Young Readers’ Edition). 2019 (Young Adult Nonfiction).
In the 1920s and 1930s, airplane racing was the most popular spectator sport in America. While the male pilots were hailed as heroes, women who flew were often criticized by the press or excluded from the races altogether. This is the young adult adaptation of O’Brien’s Fly Girls, which follows five remarkable women who took to the skies: Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Elder, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, and Louise Thaden. The women often competed against one another in contests for flight speed, distance, or height, but together they fought for the chance to race against the men — and in 1936 one of them would win the toughest race of them all. Each chapter focuses on one woman at a time as the overall story moves forward in time. Plenty of photographs, source notes, a glossary, and an index will make this a helpful informational resource for young readers interested in studying women in aviation.
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Parsons, Karyn
Illustrated by: R. Gregory Christie
Flying Free: How Bessie Coleman’s Dreams Took Flight. 2020 (Picture Book Biography).
This picture book biography details the life and flights of Bessie Coleman (1892-1926), the first Black woman and the first Native American woman to earn a pilot’s license. As a child, Bessie loved to learn, but her family worked as sharecroppers in the cotton fields and her education was regularly put on hold during harvest time. Inspired by the story of Harriet Quimby, the first woman to fly across the English Channel, Bessie set her sights on learning to fly. She became a pioneer in aviation, often performing death-defying stunts that inspired her nickname, “Queen Bess.” Written in short, rhyming stanzas with an empowering refrain, this would make an excellent read aloud for younger children who want to learn about a remarkable trailblazer in aviation.
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Pimm, Nancy Roe
The Jerrie Mock Story: The First Woman to Fly Solo around the World. 2016 (Middle Grade Nonfiction).
Despite the prominence of Amelia Earhart’s aviation legacy, few people know the name of the first woman to complete the task that Earhart died trying to achieve. In 1964, aboard her tiny single-engine Cessna plane named The Spirit of Columbus, thirty-eight-year-old mother of three Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock overcame hazardous weather, mechanical malfunctions, metal exhaustion, and possibly sabotage to become the first woman to fly around the world solo. Pimm provides plenty of details about Mock’s lifelong interest in aviation and her month-long, 23,000-mile journey. The book includes black-and-white photos, maps of important locations, and “Did You Know?” sections of aviation facts at the end of every chapter. Overshadowed by news of the Vietnam War at the time of the completion of the aircraft journey, Pimm’s account of this impressive accomplishment gives Jerrie Mock due attention.
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Sís, Peter
The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. 2014 (Picture Book Biography).
This multilayered picture book biography is a beautiful introduction to the life of Antoine de Saint Exupéry for younger readers. Larger font text along the bottom of the pages tells the basic narrative, while other details of Saint Exupéry’s story and of aviation history appear as curved sentences in smaller typeface wrapped around circular vignette drawings within the illustrations’ spreads. Readers will learn about Saint Exupéry’s family life, his first ride on an airplane at the age of twelve, the danger of his commercial flights, and the writing of The Little Prince. Sís’ illustrations are atmospheric and reflect the emotional shifts of Saint Exupéry’s experiences, like the red-splashed scenes of the outbreak of World War II and the bleak grey of his loneliness while writing in New York City. The book ends abruptly, like Saint Exupéry’s life, but with the beautiful tribute, “Maybe Antoine found his own glittering planet next to the stars.”
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Sorell, Traci
Illustrated by: Weshoyot Alvitre
At the Mountain’s Base. 2019 (Picture Book).
At the mountain’s base there is an old cabin under a hickory tree. Inside, family members spend their time weaving, cooking, and singing, waiting for their loved one, a female pilot, to return from war. This brief, fictional poem about a Cherokee family honors the legacies of the Native American women who have served in the United States Armed Forces. This picture book’s illustrations are magical, showing the threads of connection between the family’s home life and the brave flights of the woman whose return they await. An author’s note pays tribute to Native American women who serve as U.S. service members at proportionally higher rates than any other demographic. This story was inspired by an Oglala Lakota woman and member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in World War II, Ola Mildred “Millie” Rexroat.
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*Source note for the number of translations of The Little Prince: https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/most-translated-author-same-book.